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Lawmakers press Biden for quality of life focus in next defense budget

Congressional lawmakers are pressing the White House to prioritize military quality of life issues in the president’s upcoming fiscal 2025 budget request, calling out an “alarming erosion” of troops’ benefits and housing in recent years.

In a letter sent Tuesday to President Joe Biden, key leaders from the House Armed Services Committee called for the budget plan to include plans to improve military housing, junior enlisted pay, military health care options, base childcare availability and military spouse employment assistance programs.

The lawmakers said they hope to address those issues as part of the upcoming annual defense authorization bill, but said a strong show of support from the White House regarding the issues is needed to produce fixes.

“The committee’s quality of life inquiry thus far has revealed an alarming erosion of military quality of life that, if not addressed quickly, will soon place the all-volunteer force at risk,” the lawmakers wrote. “Reversing this decline will require a national commitment of resources to address quality of life concerns for service members and their families.”

Lawmakers press for junior enlisted pay boost as soon as possible

The push was signed by committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., quality of life panel chairman Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and panel ranking member Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. The group has been outspoken in recent months about the need for a congressional focus on military quality of life issues.

Biden is expected to release his fiscal 2025 budget request on March 11. But Congress still has not finalized plans for the current fiscal year budget, even though fiscal 2024 began on Oct. 1.

The latest short-term funding extension for federal agencies is set to run out for a handful of departments on March 1 and for all government operations on March 8. If lawmakers can’t reach a new deal by then, the impasse would trigger a shutdown of most federal operations and services.

Biden is scheduled to deliver his annual State of the Union address before both chambers of Congress on March 7. White House officials have not yet indicated how much — if any — of the speech will focus on military family and service member benefit issues.

Earlier this month, Bacon told Military Times that he is focused on addressing several key military quality of life issues through legislation this year, but noted that those fixes may come in the form of multi-year plans.

Among them — and among the requests outlined in Tuesday’s letter — are junior enlisted pay increases and dealing with “aging and poorly maintained barracks, dormitories, and single-family housing forcing service members and their families to contend with mold, pests, and other unacceptable habitability problems.”

“This is a large, costly undertaking, but it is our moral and national security imperative to support those who serve,” they wrote.

Most junior enlisted service members currently make around $24,000 a year in basic pay, while enlisted troops nearing retirement typically earn about $70,000 annually. In contrast, the most junior enlisted officers make at least $46,000 annually, and most make more than $80,000 a year with just six years of time in service.

The lawmakers noted that even with other bonuses and allowances, that level of salary can result in “food insecurity and economic insecurity with escalating negative impacts on recruiting and retention.”

All service members are scheduled to receive a 4.5% raise next January under the federal formula used to determine military month pay, which would be the third consecutive year of pay raises above 4% for troops.

But lawmakers have argued that those boosts do little to close the significant gap between officer and enlisted pay, and do not fully account for inflation costs in recent years.

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